The Best of Enemies ★★½

Robin Bissell’s “The Best of Enemies” may not be some kind of game-changing corrective to all the retrograde films about race in America (we’re talking about an uplifting historical biopic directed by the executive producer of “Seabiscuit”), but this sturdy drama has the good sense to recognize that allyship is only valuable when it’s hard. When it’s a sacrifice. When it forces white people to put some of their own skin in the game.

Feel-good Hollywood movies about race in America — specifically the ones that are meant to assuage white audiences of the latent guilt they feel about the historical and ongoing treatment of black people in this country — tend to hinge on the concept of friendship. And not just any friendship, but true friendship. The clumsy Eddie Murphy vehicle “Mr. Church” was “inspired by a true friendship.” So was “Green Book,” even if the truth of its friendship is more complicated than Nick Vallelonga might have us believe. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for giving this dynamic a maternal twist in “The Blind Side,” which was “based on the extraordinary true story,” while “The Upside” — a recent hit that was merely “based on a true story” — still managed to make an extraordinary amount of money.

Of course this phenomenon might owe less to the movies than it does to how they’re marketed, but it’s hard not to feel like the white men who directed these dramas (and/or the white audiences they directed them for) are skeptical of the idea that they might have anything in common with people of color. “Inspired by a true friendship” isn’t a tagline so much as it is a receipt; a preemptive defense against how fun and easy such films make it seem for someone to unlearn their racist worldview and put centuries of messiness behind them.

“The Best of Enemies” isn’t inspired by a “true” friendship, but rather by an “unlikely” one. That may be a small (or even semantic) difference, but it’s also one that emphasizes the work of social concord over the relief of an unburdened conscience (“An Unlikely Friendship” also happens to be the title of the short documentary that Diane Bloom made on the subject).

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